Depression: Modern Epidemic with Upward Trend or Ongoing Human Health Issue
Depression has become epidemic worldwide and reports are common in news and social media. In fact, a World Health Organization published in 2017, estimated approximately 4% of the world’s population has depression and it is the leading global disability. Trends show that depression rates are continuing to rise. It’s difficult to estimate rates and statistics of who and at what ages affected by depression until the last century. However, the belief depression is a modern condition is a myth. Historical documents from healers, writers, physicians, and philosophers support its existence from early times. How we describe depression and symptoms associated with it has changed throughout centuries, influenced by a variety of factors. Let’s look at depression in historical periods to better understand how.
Depression Through the Ages
Early Views of Depression – Possession and Angering Gods
The earliest written accounts of depression date to ancient Mesopotamia (parts of present-day Persian Gulf, Iran, Syria, and Turkey) in 200 B.C. and belief of demonic possession as its cause, with priests treating “clients.” This belief was common to the Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Chinese, and Egyptians. Mainstream treatments were extreme methods to drive demons out or appease the gods for angering them. Some Greek and Roman doctors held causes of symptoms were physical and biological, and advised more humane and therapeutic methods focused on eating, exercise, relaxation techniques, and homeopathic medicine.
Ancient Roman and Greek Views of Depression – Humors and Mental Cause
Hippocrates, a Greek physician viewed as the father of medicine, said an imbalance of four bodily fluids called humors: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. A balance of them represented good health, while too much or little of one led to illness. Too much black bile in the spleen was depression’s cause and bloodletting was a common treatment technique. Depression was initially known as melancholia. Cicero, a Roman philosopher argued for a mental cause with melancholia a result of anger, rage, and grief however, the predominant view remained with cause by demons or gods.
The Christian Era Views of Depression –
Leading up to the to the Middle Ages – Continued Beatings, Starvation, and Torture, But Maybe There’s a Psychological Cause
It continued with common harsh and punishing treatments. After the fall of the Roman Empire, scientific thinking took a step backward. However, Rhazes, a Persian physician living in the 9th and 10th centuries, believed mental illness was based in the brain and used a positive reward system to bring about desired behavior change moving forward theory on melancholia.
The Middle Ages: Views of Depression – Cures: Magic, Burnings, Drownings, and Exorcisms to the Renaissance Change in View
In the Middle Ages, Christianity dominated the European religious landscape and thinking returned to melancholia being related to supernatural causes with cures including magic, drownings, exorcisms, and burnings. Many people who suffered mental illness were placed in lunatic asylums. “Melancholy” officially entered modern language to describe symptoms circa 1300 AD and morphed into “melancholia” in the 1690s. The Renaissance ushered in a period of doctors moving away from supernatural origin to organic, social, and psychological roots and treatment sensitive to that.
The Age of Enlightenment (18th and 19th Centuries) – Let there Be Light: Melancholia to Depression
The Age of Enlightenment brought language change from “melancholia” to “depression” due to German psychiatrist, Emil Kraepelin, and the idea it resulted from a personality of character weakness, genetic in nature and unchangeable. However, some doctors suggested the root cause being aggression, while others believed its source was internal psychological conflict and/or physical reasons.
Welcome the 19th and 20th Centuries – New Schools and Theories
Explanations of depression from these centuries include psychoanalytic (involving unconscious mental processes), behaviorism (behavior in terms of learning by environment rather than thoughts and feelings), cognitive (how people interpret negative events can lead to depression), and biomedical (physiological, genetics, brain chemistry, hormones, and brain anatomy are interactive factors). Each of these schools of psychology operated from primarily one of these perspectives and led to many early treatments, some of which continue in some form today.
Modern View – Yay, We’re Here!
Modern views of depression take an eclectic approach and include biological, social, and psychological causes, while accounting for its cyclical symptoms and ruling out medical conditions as the culprit. Approaches to treatment typically include a variety of evidence-based practices, as well as medications to assist with symptoms. Will our views on depression and treatments change again over time? Only time will tell.
Don’t miss our next blog on young children (0 – 12 years) and depression.
For more information on Small Town Counseling services for children and teens, what to expect, and/or scheduling an appointment check out our Child and Teen Counseling Services or call 209-968-1707. FAQs and resources for depression are available in our Good Reads! For additional parenting resources visit Parenting Resources.
Magic, Drownings, Exorcisms, Burnings, and “Lunatic Asylums”: The Infinite Melancholia to Depression. A Brief History is written by David Cayton, M.A, M.S.. David has experience as a mental health professional working with children, teens, and professionals, an academic advisor, education-based research assistant, and student affairs at colleges and universities. At the time of this publishing, David Cayton is Trainer and Research Associate at Small Town Counseling® a group mental health practice located in California that helps individuals, groups, and organizations in promoting mental wellness and education on trauma and anxiety through mental health services and training.
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